During World War II, letters were essential to the health of a relationship. Soldiers and sailors who shipped overseas couldn’t make phone calls, and of course, e-mails and text messages hadn’t been invented. That left letters.
The average soldier wrote six letters a week. Those letters took anywhere from 1-4 weeks to cross the ocean to the United States. Each letter received at home assured loved ones that their serviceman was still alive and well when he wrote that letter. And each letter received on the front reminded that serviceman why he was fighting.
The US military knew that letters from home were the single biggest morale booster, and a force with high morale fights better. However, mail bags took up valuable space on cargo ships and planes. For example, in 1945 the US Army handled over 2 billion pieces of mail.
The solution was Victory Mail, or V-Mail. Letters written on pre-printed forms were photographed and reproduced onto microfilm. The rolls of microfilm were transported overseas, where the letters were printed again at one-quarter size and mailed to their destination.
V-Mail was never mandatory, but it was successful. A letter on microfilm took up about one-thirty-seventh of the space of the same letter on paper. In the first two years of the program, the military estimated that V-Mail saved room for 5 million pounds of cargo.
V-Mail stationery was a single page, printed front and back. The back contained instructions as well as space for return and mailing addresses. The letter was written on the front within the margins, boldly and in dark ink so it would reproduce well. The return and mailing addresses were repeated at the top. The form was folded in half, sealed, and sent off.
At the V-Mail processing center, each letter was censored and photographed. The original letters were stored until confirmation was received that the shipment had been received—a nice insurance policy in case a cargo ship was sunk by a U-boat or a cargo plane went down in bad weather.
V-Mail had its disadvantages. Letters had to be short. No enclosures were possible. The scent of perfume did not photograph. And lipstick prints gummed up the scanning machines—dubbed the “Scarlet Scourge” by postal workers.
Victory mail and regular letters helped couples communicate. The danger of wartime lent urgency to correspondence. No one knew if that letter was the last one they’d write or receive. Couples regularly expressed feelings usually saved for special occasions.
My source for this post was the excellent on-line display on V-Mail at the Smithsonian Postal Museum: http://www.postalmuseum.si.edu/VictoryMail